Ellison laughs his way to the top

The richest man in the world kept his audience of about 5,000 waiting for nearly two hours before waltzing on stage at the Oracle Applications User Group spring 2000 conference. Apparently Larry Ellison’s estimated worth of US$52.1 billion couldn’t buy the Oracle Corp. chairman and CEO a punctual taxi ride from Philadelphia International Airport to the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Ellison blamed the delay on U.S. presidential candidate Al Gore whose airplane landed at the same time as Ellison’s, causing a veritable security shutdown.

Dispensing with the standard speech and visual aids that accompany major conferences, Ellison asked for the house lights to be raised and opened the floor to the Oracle faithful.

“Why are you so late?” a woman called from somewhere in the crowd.

“I got caught behind the inventor of the Internet,” Ellison shot back. “His plane, Air Force Two, had just landed.”

“What’s it like to be the richest man in the world?” another woman queried.

“It’s kinda cool,” he responded to rolling laughter throughout the crowd. “Mind you, I’d rather have passed Bill (Gates) on the way up rather than him passing me on the way down.”

explaining away cuts

And from that point, Ellison never missed a beat. He confidently paced back and forth across the stage, eyeing each inquiring mind like a caged lion sizing up his prey. But he was clearly in a chipper mood on this night, and his performance was not unlike a night at a Yuk-Yuk’s comedy club. Even when he went headlong into explaining Oracle’s human downsizing initiatives – for the betterment of the corporation and its beloved customer base – it sounded good.

“We had 70 CIOs around the world, in France, in Germany, Japan and so on…the French ERP system is different from the one in the U.S. which is different from the one in Germany…[the international CIOs’] job was to change our software so we couldn’t change it again,” he explained. “I am the CEO of the number one information management company in the world and I have no idea how to find out how many people work at Oracle, there’s something very wrong here. Seventy ERPs in 70 countries with 70 teams of people – I was paying top dollar to not know what’s going on.”

Which led Ellison to turn to his two most trusted counterparts – CEOs Ron Wohl and Mark Jarvis – to fix the problem without modifying the company’s software.

more with less

“We had to move on this terrible data fragmentation problem…and what we’re in the middle of right now is quite astonishing. We’ll have more people in software development, more people on the phones to help you,” he told the crowd.

“We’ve already cut our (worldwide) staff from 45,000 to 41,000 and we will cut our head count some more, at the same time we’ll have better information and will be able to make better decisions.”

Whereas Oracle’s president and CEO Ray Lane’s delivery of the company’s rollover the day before came across as cold and callous, Ellison’s explanation was so good you could almost see a golden halo gleaming above his head. He made no bones about the decision to cut staffing across the planet, as Oracle’s charismatic leader came clean with the conference delegates.

“We’re the only company in the world trying to deliver a complete e-business suite as far as I know…we are moving Oracle’s business on-line but first we have to clean up this mess and…get rid of 99.9 per cent of modifications and extensions; even Ivory soap is only 99.9 per cent pure,” Ellison said. “I could write a book about the silly mistakes this company has made…we had 97 e-mail servers, even Canada had an e-mail server. I know we lost the war of 1812 but they didn’t deserve an e-mail server. Don’t get me wrong, I like Canadians, I played hockey as a kid.”

Ellison said he wanted Oracle’s software and services to be like McDonald’s fries: made the same all over the world. Ergo, Oracle’s future e-business suite release will feature synchronized global pricing, and an array of products intended to be absolutely complete.

Much applause ensued with each customer-first pitch Ellison threw, but judging by the audience’s line of questioning they appeared to be more concerned with Oracle’s staffing decisions. When asked why the corporation would shrink its call data centres from 67 to two and place one on a fault line (California) and the other in a flood plane (Colorado), Ellison dismissed the criticism in one fell swoop.

“I guess when the earth shakes I hope there’s no flood,” he responded, and the laughter continued.